Why Russia's closure of CBC's Moscow bureau was likely just a matter of time

The closure of CBC's office is part of Russian President Vladimir Putin's "broader effort to control information, to ensure that Russians only hear the views of the government, the propaganda of the government," says Carleton University professor. .

The CRTC decided to remove Russian state television network RT from Canadian airwaves in March

The CBC news bureau in Moscow, pictured March 2020, had been inside the historic Kotelnicheskaya Embankment Building on the banks of the Moscow River. (CBC)

When Canada banned Russian state television network RT, analysts said it was only a matter of time before Moscow retaliated with Canadian news outlets in the crosshairs. 

That the target was the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation is not surprising, experts said, given how Moscow likely views the public broadcaster as a mouthpiece for the government, just as critics of RT accuse it of being a propaganda tool for the Russian state.

"Their assumption is that any broadcaster connected to a state one way or another — and they do not differentiate between state media and public media — is fundamentally indistinguishable from RT," said Samuel Greene, director of the Russia Institute at King's College London.

"The fact that Canada has the CBC or Britain has the BBC, is in fact, part of the justification for Russia having RT," Greene continued. "So it just makes sense that if Canada's not going to let RT operate in Canada, then Russia's not going to let the CBC operate in Russia."

Correspondent Briar Stewart works in CBC's Moscow office in January before the closure of the bureau was formally announced by Russian authorities on Wednesday. (CBC)

On Wednesday, Russian officials confirmed that CBC's Moscow bureau would be closed and the network's journalists expelled in response to Ottawa's move to ban broadcasting by the Russian channels, RT and RT France. RT was formerly called Russia Today before a rebranding.

'We will have to respond'

On March 16, Canada's telecommunications regulator, the CRTC, said it decided to remove RT from Canadian airwaves because the network's programming was "not consistent with the standards against which Canadian services are measured nor the policy objectives set out in the Broadcasting Act."

Moscow had no choice but to respond in kind, a Russian diplomat in Ottawa said on Wednesday. "There is no question about making any unfriendly steps against Russia. We will have to respond to this. This is the rules of the game," Vladimir Proskuryakov, deputy chief of mission at Russia's Embassy in Canada, told CBC News.

The actions taken by Moscow are also part of a broader trend to try and strangle Western reporting in Russia, said Fen Hampson, a professor at Carleton University's Norman Patterson School of International Affairs.

"This is part of [Russian President Vladimir] Putin's broader effort to control information, to ensure that Russians only hear the views of the government, the propaganda of the government," he said.

Maria Repnikova, an associate professor in global communication at Georgia State University, said part of Moscow's decision to eject the CBC could be its genuine belief that media outlets always serve the interests of the state, including in Canada.

But it's also part of Russia's broader disconnecting from the West, she added.

Western reporting, whether it's Canadian or U.S. media, "doesn't seem to serve any utility for Putin and the Russian government," she said. 

WATCH | CBC News editor in chief Brodie Fenlon responds to bureau closure:

Canadian 'censorship' behind decision to close CBC Moscow bureau, Russian diplomat says

3 months ago
Duration 1:24
According to Vladimir Proskuryakov, deputy chief of mission of the Russian Embassy to Canada, Russia's decision to close CBC's Moscow bureau was a retaliatory step in response to Canada's 'censorship in media.' He said Russia may take similar actions against other countries that ban Russia's state TV station RT.

That's why there will likely be more of these kinds of actions taken against Western news outlets in Russia, especially as Moscow struggles in its war in Ukraine, Repnikova said.

Tit for tat

The particular actions against the CBC could also be an outgrowth of the current state of relations between Moscow and Ottawa, which are hovering around an all-time low, Hampson said.

"The Russians have been playing a game of tit for tat when it comes to responding to our sanctions," he said. "We've curbed Russian television broadcasting in Canada. So it's really no surprise that the shoe is now on the other foot and they're doing the same thing to us."

Russia closed the Moscow bureau of German broadcaster Deutsche Welle in February after Germany blocked RT's broadcasts. But Moscow has yet to retaliate against the EU as a whole after it banned RT and Sputnik, another Russian state-backed outlet, back in March.

WATCH | Russian diplomat blames Canadian 'censorship' for closure of CBC Moscow bureau:

CBC News editor in chief responds to Moscow bureau closure

3 months ago
Duration 1:29
CBC News editor in chief Brodie Fenlon says Russia's decision to close CBC/Radio-Canada's Moscow bureau and revoke visas and press credentials for its journalists is 'a sad day' for press freedom.

Vasily Gatov, a Russian media researcher who is working on a book about the re-emergence of totalitarian censorship of the Russian press, believes the actions taken against the CBC were really about sending a message to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland.

"I think what is very specific  ... is their attitude toward Canadian government decisions and Canadian government personalities who are very much disliked in Moscow," Gatov said of the Russian government's motives. 

"I don't think this has something to do with [CBC] journalists who work in Moscow," said the writer, who is also a senior fellow at the USC Annenberg Center on Communication in Los Angeles. "It is a political message sent to Ottawa about Russia completely kind of despising Canadian foreign policy in regard to Russia."

A placard against Russian broadcaster RT is displayed at a protest against Russia's invasion of Ukraine in Toronto on Feb. 27. (Chris Helgren/Reuters)

Proskuryakov, the Russian diplomat in Ottawa, said the decision against the CBC had nothing to do with the network's journalists; it was simply based on "making a retaliatory step." He said CBC's bureau might reopen in future if and when Canada allowed RT to resume broadcasting on its airwaves.

Proskuryakov said he "wouldn't rule out" Russia shutting down other international news outlets' bureaus, including those of European Union countries.

"If we see that the rights of our journalists and the freedom of speech is violated in any country ... then we will take appropriate steps," he said.


Mark Gollom

Senior Reporter

Mark Gollom is a Toronto-based reporter with CBC News. He covers Canadian and U.S. politics and current affairs.

With files from Laura McQuillan, Ashley Burke and Raffy Boudjikanian